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health fallout

Salt Talks: Campbell's CEO Addresses Sodium Debate

Posted by Dale Buss on July 15, 2011 03:00 PM

And here we thought Yahoo's Carol Bartz was a pioneer among female CEOs using salty language.

Only, Denise Morrison isn't yet CEO of the Campbell Soup Company — she moves into the C-suite on August 1st — and she isn't hurling expletives, but addressing the issue of actual salt: as in, exactly how much salt do Campbell’s customers want in their soups, and in which soups?

As president of Campbell USA, Morrison, who is taking over from CEO Doug Conant, was one of the company’s biggest proponents of its healthy eating commitment and full-court sodium-reduction strategy of the last few years.

That gained Campbell some props from food activists and gave the company lots of “new and improved” products to market on a better-for-you basis. But it hasn’t done a lot for sales: Campbell reported a 7% decline in soup revenue for the quarter that ended May 1st.

There are all sorts of other factors, as Morrison herself pointed out in a meeting with investment analysts this week. They include reduced domestic advertising spending, competition from other “quick meals,” a generational drift away from soups by Millennials, and the proof of the fallacy that soup is popular with recession-weary consumers because Campbell’s price-promotional efforts during the downturn only eroded profits.

But for Campbell’s renewal, it all might come down to taste, and salt is crucial to taste. The problem with it is that federal regulators and nutrition academics have focused like a laser on the “problem” of excess sodium in the American diet and its contributions to high blood pressure and other problems.

So already, sodium-obsessed critics have cried foul over Campbell’s decision to re-add some salt to its Select Harvest line because consumers rejected the reduced-sodium version. Yet Morrison has signaled that Campbell plans to reformulate 46 of its soup varieties to focus on taste – presumably, higher sodium content will be included there – and to launch 27 new products in North America. Company executives are saying, basically, that they need to do a better job of providing desirable salt and taste levels to various customer groups and effectively communicating with them.

So what does it mean to be “m’m good?” Campbell is still trying to figure that out.

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